Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Time for a Car-Bike-Pedestrian social contract

I joined other members of the astute and tireless advocacy group, Transportation Alternatives, last Saturday for part one of a citizens’ inspection tour of the Manhattan-Bronx bridges and surrounding neighborhoods to help them develop plans for pedestrian and cyclist safety. There were 40 participants on foot and bike for the two-hour on-site review, a testimony to TA’s organizing skill and capacity.

Their plan is to develop and submit recommendations to the area’s community boards, the appointed bodies with no formal powers but tremendous wallop. When the CBs declare their opposition to a zoning change, a liquor license or a street routing change, it’s pretty much dead. Conversely, CB support has been crucial to the growth of the city’s large network of bike lanes and other traffic control measures.

The context is that the city is witnessing a relentless toll of pedestrian fatalities and injuries, the latest occurring in the Zone of Death around the West 90s in the Upper West Side where someone seems to get wasted by a car or bus every week. Ironically, there was a serious accident involving a teen on 106th Street the day after our TA tour just a few blocks to the north.

As a cyclist who travels to pretty much all the areas in and around New York City, I can attest to the relative caution exercised by lower Manhattan drivers who, unlike their counterparts uptown and in the suburb-like further reaches of Queens, will not try to punch through yellow lights to speed past an intersection. Aggressive pedestrian traffic inhibits them as there are just too many distracted people on the streets risking life and limb.

Distracted being the operative word here—people are just not paying attention, and of course the cellphone phenomenon has made everything ten times worse. When cycling, I come close to ramming someone engrossed in a text at least once per hour, on average, many of whom have not yet realized that bike paths are not sidewalks but actual lanes of traffic with moving vehicles on them. Other bikers, especially but not exclusively delivery guys, ride against traffic on the lanes or one-way streets, dangerously jump red lights, detour to sidewalks and generally make life miserable for everyone. And drivers are hardly blameless though in fairness they tend to be pretty well behaved below 59th Street.

I have come to the conclusion that the entire city will have to relearn the use of our streets if we are to avoid continuing mayhem and permanent mutual annoyance, which is rising to dangerous levels. I see people becoming increasingly exasperated with the blithe disregard for basic street etiquette that has always been rampant here but is now getting out of hand. It won’t take much for a few individuals to be triggered by an incident into a meltdown with violent consequences.

Mayor De Blasio has called for a concerted effort to reduce traffic casualties, which he has named ‘Vision Zero’, meaning zero fatalities, and that’s an admirable start. But part of this vision has to include a recognition that the density of our city, its greatest asset, also means we have to learn and adopt a code of behavior, just as we subway veterans do when we board the MTA. It means putting the damn smartphone down when you’re on the street or stepping to one side when using it, taking seriously the concept behind a curb and a stoplight, and understanding that all kinds of machines can whiz past you whether you hear them coming or not.

New York led the way on getting tobacco use out of our bars and restaurants. Its time for us to get hip to another public health urgency: the need to move around our crowded urban spaces with a little sense and without the need to take the hand of adult.

No comments: